I’m reading a discussion paper prepared for the Uniting Church’s national assembly. The particular topic of the paper is irrelevant here, but i came across a paragraph that is becoming depressingly familiar, and it’s got me annoyed enough to have been stamping round the office all day. I’ve decided you should all share the brunt, not just my colleagues.
I quote from the report [which i won’t name here – because it’s not fair to single this one out over any other]:
Societal changes have meant a move from the modern belief in reason, progress and human potential to post-modernity with its scepticism concerning reason, suspicion of established institutions, pessimism about the future and relativism.
Have you ever noticed how many church reports frame post-modernity in negative terms [scepticism, suspicion, pessimism]? It’s really starting to piss me off.
Relativism is indeed a feature of a post-modern society – because we’ve recognised that the declarative truths of modernity emerged from within a particular cultural framework, and that they come with an innate bias [where the normal, for example, is male, middle class, educated, white, Christian]. The language that mediates truth is always culturally bound, so even if we’ve located a universal truth, our ways of communicating it will never be pure. Post-modernity has meant a move from ‘one size fits all’ in terms of education, belief, family structure, community; it doesn’t mean that there are no longer moral standards but that moral authority no longer comes automatically by virtue of position or status. The scepticism of progress has come because we recognise it often has a cost, and most often that cost is paid by those who can least afford it. Perhaps instead of speaking of ‘a suspicion of established institutions’, we could say instead ‘our society now recognises the limitations and failings of institutions, and readily critiques their assumptions and self-given authority’… Thank god for all of that, i say.
Of course, post-modernity is bad news for those who previously demanded authority by virtue simply of position. It’s bad news for those who equated knowledge with power, and kept it from others. It’s bad news for people and groups who want everyone to think like them, or who need absolutes to feel safe. It’s good news for everyone whose voice has been excluded, or dismissed as ‘wrong’ or ignorant because it speaks a different truth. Well, it could be good news, if we let it. Coincidentally, the church has a gospel imperative to make it good news.
Continuing the paragraph:
In relation to the church, we have moved from a Christian society to a post Christian, individualistic, consumer society in which the church has far less prominence.
Basically, the church is not the [self-selected] centre of the world anymore. We weren’t doing that good a job at being the centre of the world, and many theologians would argue that the church can only do its job when it isn’t. But that’s not what really bothers me. It’s reducing the description of post-Christian society to being simply individualistic or consumer. It’s both of those things, of course, and i wish it wasn’t. But it’s also become a global society – which means people understand the diversity of the world better. Our society understands the limits of knowledge, and the extraordinary potential and the dangers of human progress. It’s cynical, idealistic, optimistic, pessimistic, all in the one breath. Our society is made up of people who want to change the world, and others who want the world to stay as it is – much like every generation before us. The pressures to consume are enormous, more than ever before, and the church needs to speak prophetically against that. Alongside that, though, is also a capacity to be informed about the world more than ever before – and its about time the church started to celebrate that.
Surely incarnational theology would have us believe that the gospel speaks into and from within every culture, context and era. I wish that those who see post-modernity as a threat would also understand the damage that modernity has done to the gospel – and i guess it’s up to the rest of us to invite them into the world of possibility that post-modernity offers.